Hanoi at 1,000 Years: Secret Cafes and Mythical Creatures

This post is written by Gabby Miller who will be the trip leader on our upcoming Reality Tours delegation to Viet Nam: Viet Nam at the Crossroads.

In the early morning hours before the summer heat floods the city, I sat in a small, clandestine cafe overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake – the emerald body of water at the heart, and historic center of Hanoi. This was my second visit in twenty four hours to the lookout spot.

The previous afternoon, a young art student named Son had asked me with great excitement whether I would like to join him for a special lychee drink. He explained that the seed of the lychee fruit is removed, and a lotus seed is stuffed into the opening of the sweet white fruit. This hybrid treat is soaked in lychee juice, and is a speciality of a very special old-time Hanoi cafe. My answer was, of course, a resonant “YES!”, and so we forged through the streets together.

Son walked us along the border of Hoan Kiem Lake. We wove our way through the honking, motorbikes curving through the streets. Following his lead, we made our way into a store that sold exclusively tourist backpacks. We ducked beneath the dangling bags, and slipped into the store, through a narrow hallway and up a darkened, increasingly narrow staircase. Son led me into a room full of young kids sitting around low wooden tables, sipping at cups of ice coffee and the milky lychee drink. Pink Floyd reverberated through the air, and a grandmotherly lady greeted us with a smile, as she looked up from the small pyramid of skinned lychees at the table below her. This cafe, my new friend explained, has long been the haunt of students and artists, and has in recent years become a spot for Hanoi’s growing group of rock and metal music lovers.

Son and I sat down for our drinks, and I reveled in the discovery of this new secret spot – attempting to decipher the palimpsests scraped and scribbled into the walls. Finding myself in strange refuge existing contemporaneously with, and literally above the hustle and bustle of the metropolis, I joined in on the great Hanoian tradition of pausing the day for a delicious drink with a friend. Secret places like this, just barely out of view and full of life, are what I love about Hanoi.

The next morning, the morning that I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, I returned to this clandestine rock and roll, sweet lychee drink cafe. This time, I was acting as guide rather than tour-ee, I brought two artists from Amsterdam to my new favorite place. We landed the best seats in the house, a small table on the balcony overlooking the lake.

This lake, I swore to them, has been continuously inhabited by giant turtles for centuries. Hoan Kiem translates to “Lake of the Restored Sword”, or “Sword Lake”. Stories of the Hoan Kiem Turtle began in the fifteenth century with Le Loi, who became an emperor of Vietnam and founder of the Le Dynasty. According to legend, in the 15th century Lê Lợi had been given a magic sword which he always brought along with him in the years of resistance against Chinese invaders. One day, not long after the Chinese had accepted Vietnam’s independence, Lê Lợi was out boating on the lake (which was then known as blue waters lake), when a turtle suddenly emerged on the surface. Lê Lợi took out his sword and pointed it at the turtle who snatched the weapon and dove quickly back into the water. Lê Lợi  thought that God had given him the sword to fight the enemy, now that the enemy had been defeated, God had taken it back. Lê Lợi then gave the lake it’s present name.

The Dutch artists were skeptical, even with my oath that my own sister had spotted the turtle just last year. How could a creature so old possibly be living in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and in water that is such an unusually deep shade of green?! This was surely just a legend.

Just as these questions floated from their mouths, my arm reached out and pointed to the waters. “There. Just look.”

The head crested first. A yellow skull, followed by an elongated neck and then the shell. The legendary turtle was surfacing for a morning swim. The body blotted the solid green of the lake, then descended below again, leaving only a trail of bubbles popping. The turtle rose again, swimming with it’s mouth out of water. Flabbergasted to have the myth brought into reality with such sychronicity, we watched  in silence, as the turtle exposed his head to sunlight and air.

The sighting, which friends told me would bring good luck for a year, also served up some wonderful questions. This turtle, perhaps the descendant of Le Loi’s legendary turtle that gives the lake it’s name, could be hundreds of years old by now. What transformations of the country has this giant creature lived through? How many people throughout the centuries have had this lucky sighting of the same living animal?

I’m looking forward to introducing the Vietnam I know to Global Exchange. I cannot guarantee a turtle sighting, but it is impossible not to be amazed by the country. On October 10th,  the exact date that our Vietnam at the Crossroads delegation starts, the celebration of the 1,000 year founding of the city of Hanoi will begin. Although I’ve been noticing the dwindling number of the days on the official countdown clock for months, it was not until this wonderful incident two weeks ago, that I was reminded that centuries past truly reside in the present moment in this city.

More from Gabby on her blog: http://nicedogblog.tumblr.com/

For more information about Reality Tour delegations to Vietnam, contact Alessandro at alessandro [at] globalexchange.org.